First Person

Commentary: READ Act a victory for kids

The heads of five education advocacy organizations extoll the virtues of the just-passed early literacy act.

The READ Act was one of the most visible bills of the 2012 legislative session and will likely go down in history as one of the most important –a huge victory for Colorado’s kids. As staunch advocates for the bill from day one, and on behalf of the students, parents, educators, civic and business leaders we represent, we applaud Colorado’s legislators for getting this right. The bipartisan amendments that have led to the current bill have made it better, and that kind of collaboration is to be celebrated. Legislators resisted the temptation to water down the bill’s core principles and passed a bold, culture changing piece of legislation.

We are grateful to Governor Hickenlooper, Lieutenant Governor Garcia, and the bill’s primary sponsors, Representatives Massey and Hamner, and Senators Johnston and Spence. They were relentless in their pursuit of a well-reasoned and research-based solution to Colorado’s early literacy crisis. These legislators identified and incorporated national best practices, while at the same time crafted a uniquely Colorado solution. The result should be cheered and welcomed by students, parents, teachers, and administrators alike.

As a coalition, we have worked on this effort for 19 months, since Colorado’s early literacy crisis was highlighted by Colorado Succeeds’ 2010 publication, “Proving the Possible.” Since that time, our goal has been to fundamentally change the culture of early reading in our state to ensure that all children read by the end of third grade, without excuse or exception. We are confident that the READ Act will successfully accomplish this overall objective because of its three core principles:

  1. Identify struggling readers as early as possible;
  2. Take aggressive action to implement comprehensive, scientifically-based reading interventions for those students; and
  3. Share accountability for reading outcomes among all stakeholders – teachers, parents, students and administrators.

This bill, at its core, is about intervening early to get kids on track before it’s too late. When the policy takes effect in 2013, struggling readers will be identified as early as kindergarten and teachers will work with those students to diagnose the root cause of their reading difficulties.

We know from scientific research and experience that there are five essential components to effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Therefore, teachers will diagnosis the student’s strengths and weaknesses in each of these five areas.

Teachers will then work with the student’s parent to create a customized intervention plan that supports their child in developing the specific reading skills that he or she is lacking. The Colorado Department of Education will provide professional development to assist teachers in delivering highly effective reading instruction and interventions. Teachers will also have access to a resource bank of proven instructional programs and strategies for improving reading skills in the five critical areas.

Teachers will frequently monitor the student’s progress and ensure that the intervention plan is updated and differentiated based on reliable quantitative and qualitative data. Throughout this process, teachers will regularly communicate with the student’s parent, equipping them with basic methods to implement at home to boost their child’s reading skills.

The legislature allocated $16 million to annually support interventions such as summer school, reading tutors, and full day kindergarten for struggling readers. The reporting requirements enable stakeholders to clearly see the return on investment and helps facilitate the sharing of best practices across the state.

If after years of supportive interventions, students still struggle with significant reading deficiencies, the parent, teacher, and principal must consider retaining the child with more rigorous intervention and remediation strategies.

In kindergarten, first, and second grade, the parent will decide if the student will advance. However, in third grade, the school district’s superintendent makes the final decision. Superintendents will be motivated to maintain rigorous standards that prevent students with significant reading deficiencies from advancing to the fourth grade. This will be most evident by the inclusion of the district’s early literacy data in the annual accreditation and improvement planning process with the Colorado Department of Education.

This policy framework provides a powerful incentive for parents, teachers, and districts to seriously engage in early literacy efforts and at the same time holds all stakeholders accountable for making progress. This is a thoughtful, practical approach and a necessary step toward ensuring all children are literate by the end of third grade.

We appreciate the legislature’s hard work on this bill and look forward to supporting the implementation process, as the work now shifts to the State Board of Education for rule-making and eventually classrooms across Colorado. 

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.